The anonymous buyer.
So where do you go to my lovely, when you’re alone in MY head…(With apologies to Peter Sarstead…)
You see, you can’t look at the thoughts that surround the reader when they’re alone inside your book (which, whether you like it or not is at least a lean-to or porte-cochère of your head. Well, your mind. The last person who looked inside my head claimed he could see daylight out of the other ear. I had not the heart to tell him it was an oncoming train… and it’s been lost in there for a week.)
The best you can do is look inside your own head and fondly imagine that there are other heads like that who would want to read your book. Of course that is only true for certain values of ‘like that’. No two people are alike, BUT we’re social animals. We’ve survived by making educated guesses about what is inside the heads of others, and getting right enough times to breed and survive (many men are surprised by this. Women should be. Some are, some may be. Some of them may yet be, because we’re living in changing times.)
Look, here’s the thing: people may be curious enough about your ideas and writing to read about what goes on in your head, projected onto characters. If you give them enough to identify with or care about those characters this becomes a lot easier and more likely. I was reading about, for example, a major award winning movie about a gay romance between a younger male and older one. Now, while one side of the political spectrum was raving about how wonderful and deserving of awards it was because of the issues, and the other was pointing out it would be considered pedophilia in a number of jurisdictions… my own reaction was ‘and why do I care?’ Why would I bother to pay to watch it? I’m not really interested in their ‘world’ or the type of characters portrayed, and to get my attention action or drama or mystery is more likely to give me a reason than ‘a gay romance.’ I’m not gay, and while I enjoy a few romances – they tend to be long on action, history, characters that amuse or attract me, and have great dialogue, or better, repartee.
Now the film may have all the action, history, characters and repartee I’d enjoy. But in ‘selling’ it to the public the focus is on homosexuality and the romance. Oh and awards. That’s supposed to be the dog-whistles to pack the audience in. For a segment of the audience it probably will be.
Yes, that’ll convince ME I have to see it. Oh, but ‘important people’ like celebrities and critics, will call I’m a bigot if I don’t rush to do so… Good-o. If that is what they – or you – want to call me or even believe, I don’t care enough about their or your opinion to pretend I give a damn.
And, at least in private, that’s how a lot of people work. The reading world is VERY private – which is why porn (Hetero, homo and all the alphabet soup, + pianos, dwarves and donkeys.) or ‘erotica’ sell well, especially as e-books. And this, I think is the missing fact which has confounded publishers, booksellers and many authors.
You see, online purchase is anonymous (at least to your friends, acquaintances and coworkers if not FBI, and NSA), No one sees you browse, no one see you at the check out – and the online bookstore doesn’t care about its image and carrying the ‘right books’ and has everything – it doesn’t care if you want ‘Coprophagia made Tasty’ or ‘See Dick and Spot Run’. Delivery is secret, and so is what you do with it… and world inside your head is most private of all. Unless you tell the NSA they won’t know (probably just as well)… and neither will the author.
From this you get a multiple award winning feminist author – who has standing room only at her Con readings and twitter-praise lavished on her man-bashing panels… moaning that if only she sold one copy for every person there. But you see, they’re seen to be there, by people they care about impressing. No-one sees them buy, and they cared far more about being seen than actually reading – which is why you have ‘prestigious’ authors begging on patreon, while authors slated and slandered as useless and bad are buying mountains and farms. And supposedly influential critical sites running fund-raisers and patreon begging – because advertising – once lucrative – just doesn’t pay the bills.
Society’s mirror is largely lost on the internet, and entirely lost when it comes to spending money. More and more customers are getting that. It’s not what the world, or even ‘important’ people think of their choices… because they won’t know what any individual bought. They’ll just know what their income is. That income depends entirely on what the reader derives from the book.
The latter point is what I’m driving at. As a writer who lives by selling you’re trying to guess at least what goes on in people’s heads when they enter your world. Being a good observer and listener will help because that makes your characters less of just a shade of yourself. But of course the only real measure is them buying your book or story, and coming back and buying more. Honestly, it’s the latter that publishers ought to try to measure, to base their decisions on. Advertising or luck (being at the right place at the right time) can boost anything. But if the same customers keep coming back, they like having you in their heads.
The traditional publisher essentially operated on ‘there’s one born every minute.’ Yes, big names and big sellers got favored. But with the noobs and midlist – well, it wasn’t the customer that was important – but pleasing the publisher. Series were supposed to lose readers with every book – and that was acceptable and normal. Return custom hasn’t been a factor with some – particularly erotica, and cheapies – indies either. But I believe that will change – we’re in shakedown now. Customers will become more discerning, names they like and trust, people they want and trust in their heads will attract more sales and a price premium. Not a vast one, but some.
So just how do you tell that you’re getting returnees? (You obviously attract them by being fairly consistent.) Well, you start by a steady increase in sales within a series (especially if the first becomes free or cheap). You also start seeing the comments ‘I’m a fan/regular reader of so-and-so and I love this book’. You get increasing sign-ups for newsletter.
If you’re seeing growth you’re winning – inside their heads. If you’re seeing awards and critical acclaim but losing sales and needing patreon to survive… you’re not.